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Plant defense associations in the marine environment

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In contrast to terrestrial systems, few positive plant-plant associations have been recorded in tropical reef environments. This study, conducted at Carrie Bow Cay, Belize during 28 March–10 April 1984, provides the first documentation of herbivore escapes for natural combinations of palatable and unpalatable marine plants. For example, there was a highly significant association of several macrophyte taxa (Laurencia poitei, Dictyota spp., Amphiroa fragilissima, Cladophoropsis macromeres, Galaxaura cylindrica, rhodophycean turf) within a 2.0-cm radius of the herbivore-resistant brown alga Stypopodium zonale. Almost twice as many taxa occurred within 10 cm of S. zonale as within 10 cm of an equal number of random Stypopodium-free points, and there were no algal species negatively associated with S. zonale. The association of A. tribulus, L. poitei, Digenia simplex, rhodophycean turf, and Jania adherens with S. zonale provided them a fourfold greater survivorship per 48 h in the presence of grazing activity by fishes (mainly Acanthuridae and Scaridae). Reduced herbivory by fishes on macroalgae associated with S. zonale was not solely a consequence of its structural aspect. Losses of the palatable alga Acanthophora spicifera were significantly greater for thalli spatially remote (30 and 60 cm) from either a real or simulated Stypopodium; however, losses of A. spicifera adjacent to actual Stypopodium plants were significantly less than the losses next to models. The inter-relationships studied here, where an abundant and well-defended plant provides a significant refuge habitat for at least five relatively edible macroalgae, clearly facilitates the survival of certain taxa in the reef system and concomitantly enhances the within habitat diversity. Our findings also suggest an interaction counter to the process of competitive exclusion, since the single predominant plant has a positive rather than negative net effect on the abundances of other species that utilize the same general resources (e.g., light, space, nutrients).

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Littler, M.M., Taylor, P.R. & Littler, D.S. Plant defense associations in the marine environment. Coral Reefs 5, 63–71 (1986).

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  • Macrophyte
  • Macroalgae
  • Brown Alga
  • Reef System
  • Reef Environment